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Citing 'tumultuous times,' the White House is toning down a state dinner for Australia

President Biden welcomes Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during an official arrival ceremony at the South Lawn of the White House.
Saul Loeb
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden welcomes Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during an official arrival ceremony at the South Lawn of the White House.

Updated October 25, 2023 at 11:18 AM ET

President Biden is hosting Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for a state visit on Wednesday. But the White House is scaling back a bit of its planned celebrations at a gala state dinner — months in the making — because of the crisis in the Middle East.

As he welcomed Albanese, Biden noted that the two countries were "standing with Israel against Hamas's terrorism," and Albanese praised Biden for making the case that Palestinian civilians should be protected in Gaza. "We applaud the personal resolve you have brought to this troubled part of the world," Albanese said.

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First lady Jill Biden had invited Georgia party band the B-52s to be the musical entertainment for the dinner, but she told reporters on Tuesday that she had changed those plans. The band will attend the dinner as guests, but the Army and Air Force Strolling String bands and the U.S. Marine Band will perform instead.

"We are now in a time when so many are facing sorrow and pain, so we made a few adjustments to the entertainment portion of the evening," the first lady said.

A guest on the South Lawn holds a program for the arrival ceremony for Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the White House.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A guest on the South Lawn holds a program for the arrival ceremony for Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the White House.

The U.S. is deepening ties with Australia to counter China

As the Biden administration has worked to counter China's influence in the Indo-Pacific region — its top foreign policy priority — the White House has sought to deepen its ties with Australia.

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President Biden had planned to visit Australia in May, but had to cancel his trip due to the debt ceiling negotiations. Now, the Middle East crisis is overshadowing the visit meant to honor Albanese.

The leaders plan to talk about new investments in critical minerals mining projects, shared research on artificial intelligence, investments in critical minerals mining, and a plan to work with Google to lay subsea cables to expand internet access for Pacific Island nations.

"The theme — the current — running through this visit is really going to be on innovation," said John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council.

Reporters get a sneak peek at the table setting and menu for President Biden's state dinner for Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Oct. 24, 2023.
Mark Schiefelbein / AP
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AP
Reporters get a sneak peek at the table setting and menu for President Biden's state dinner for Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Oct. 24, 2023.

Here's what's on the menu

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In the evening, the leaders and their guests will dine in a pavilion on the South Lawn draped in a cascade of colorful cloth inspired by the colors of the sunset, the White House told reporters. Tables will be festooned with pink roses, Australian eucalyptus, dahlias and delphiniums.

"Nurturing our partnerships and relationships with our allies is critically important, especially in these tumultuous times," Jill Biden said on Tuesday, previewing the state dinner's menu.

"Food is comforting, reassuring and healing, and we hope that this dinner provides a little of that as well," she said.

Guest chef Katie Button, who has restaurants in North Carolina, has prepared a menu featuring butternut squash soup, a roasted beet salad, and sarsaparilla-braised short ribs.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Guest chef Katie Button shows reporters sarsaparilla-braised short ribs, the main course for a state dinner for Australia's prime minister.
Mark Schiefelbein / AP
/
AP
Guest chef Katie Button shows reporters sarsaparilla-braised short ribs, the main course for a state dinner for Australia's prime minister.

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Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.